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books Taking a Hammer to It

An eye-opening read traces today’s collective rage against big tech back to the Luddite uprising the industrial revolution.

Garment workers in Bangladesh stage a protest as part of the global Make Amazon Pay campaign. (Photo: Photo: @NazmaAkter73/X // Peoples Dispatch),

Nobody likes being described as someone who mindlessly opposes technology and is doomed to irrelevance. So imagine how the Luddites would feel knowing their name has been smeared with that meaning over the past 200 years.


Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech
By Brian Merchant
Hachette Book Group / Little, Brown and Company; 496 pages
September 26, 2023
Hardcover:  $30.00;  Ebook:  $14.99


Little, Brown and Company

The Luddite movement, which challenged factory automation in England at the start of the industrial revolution, was far more reasonable and complex than the bogeyman conjured up by governments and businesses, writes Brian Merchant, technology columnist at the Los Angeles Times. In his book Blood in the Machine: The origins of the rebellion against big tech, Merchant unspools a myth-busting historical tale interwoven with pointed comparisons to how modern tech giants are eroding workers’ collective rights and prosperity through an algorithm-driven gig economy, and attempting mass automation of jobs using robots and artificial intelligence.

Instead of naively raging against all machines, the 19th-century Luddites were motivated by clear-eyed recognition of how some local entrepreneurs – whom Merchant describes as the “first tech titans” – deployed waterand steam-powered technologies such as power looms to churn out lower-quality yarn and cloth, replacing skilled artisan weavers with low-paid factory workforces doing dull and dangerous tasks.

Those entrepreneurs knowingly chose to adopt automation for the sake of maximising business profits while destroying the “flexible and family-oriented” cottage industry lifestyle that had sustained hundreds of thousands of weavers and their families. “If the Luddites have taught us anything, it’s that robots aren’t taking our jobs,” writes Merchant. “Our bosses are.”

Facing mass unemployment, workers responded with a resistance movement focused on breaking machines with hammers. But such action only came after years of peaceful work strikes and local negotiations with factory bosses, along with petitions to the Crown that mostly went unheeded.

Luddites wore masks to hide their identities during raids and wrote anonymous warning letters signed “Geneeral Ludd” or even “King Ludd” – essentially a “powerful nineteenth-century meme” based on the legend of a young cloth trade apprentice named Ned Ludd, who supposedly smashed his employer’s knitting frame before hiding out in Sherwood Forest like Robin Hood, writes Merchant. Blood in the Machine traces the Luddite movement’s spread from Nottingham in central England northwards, starting in 1811. The British government eventually suppressed the Luddites by making machine-breaking a capital offence under the law and using military force. Still, Merchant finds reasons for optimism in how their actions slowed automation in certain regions for years, buying time for political reforms to restore some protections.

A revived spirit of Luddism may be more necessary than ever in the 21st century, when companies such as Uber and Amazon are imposing mass surveillance and a “robotic pace of work” on millions of workers, writes Merchant. He also points to how venture capitalists are backing generative AI services capable of churning out synthetic images and text in ways that undermine the livelihoods of artists and writers.

The response of modern workers has been to organise amid a growing backlash against big tech. The first draft of this history is still being written in headlines about resurgent labour unions and 2023’s “hot strike summer”. Nobody is smashing up data centres with hammers just yet – but the Luddites’ story shows how people can be moved to violence against machines if governments and tech titans leave them with no recourse.

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[Jeremy Hsu is focused on covering technology trends involving AI, robotics, drones and computing, and he is keen on understanding how those trends impact both human societies and the Earth's environments.]